The Constitution, as originally written, created a complicated system of controls to prevent the consolidation of power in any one person, or institution. One reason for this is that the framers were trying to balance two concerns: how to create a government for a free society without having a monarch, on the one hand, and how to prevent the “mob,” through democratic rule, from creating a different kind of threat, on the other. They viewed a tyrannical mob as just as worrisome as a tyrannical king.
In addition, the framers needed to represent the states in the national government. It was the states, after all, which created the federal government in the first place!
These things come together in the way the Senate works. For a quick review of the question of whether elections matter, watch the video clip:
Originally, senators were elected by state legislatures – not by direct election. That is, you voted for your local representative or state senator, and the state legislature then voted on who to send to Washington as your state’s senators.
The idea was this system would make senators responsive to the interests of the states, and in particular would prevent Washington from vacuuming up state authority.
From the point of view of an individual citizen, you would express your voice through your local representative, who would have been responsible for getting the senator’s ear.
This system started breaking down after the Civil War. In some states with a split legislature, it became impossible to agree on a senator, and their senate seats went unfilled for years. In others, there was a belief that special interests had captured the state legislature, and so the needs of ordinary citizens weren’t being heard.
Finally, in 1913, the 17th Amendment to the Constitution was adopted, providing for the direct election of U.S. Senators.
In recent years, proponents of limited government have tried to repeal the 17th Amendment, and return to the indirect election of senators. Few believe this could ever happen.
- In the video, the question asked is, “What difference does an election make?” Students seem to agree that, at least at the high school level, they make little difference. Do you agree?
- The underlying question is what authority elected officials have. In your school, what are the responsibilities of the school government?
- If you had indirect elections, as the Senate used to have, would that change things? What if each after school activity (chess club, football, Spanish club, robotics club) elected its own representatives. Would that change things?
- Returning to the United States, do you think structures like the Electoral College, the indirect election of senators, etc., were a good idea then? Would/are they now?
This reading is an excerpt from Certell’s Common Sense Government eBook. Certell offers curriculum materials and eBooks free of charge for use by students and teachers. Click Here to download the Common Sense Government materials.
9, Feb 2018, Repeal the 17th Amendment [Digital image]. Retrieved from <noqreport.com>.